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A brief to defend children's rights

Barbara Lantin reports on a campaigning legal centre in Islington that provides expert advice in a confusing field
The phrase "children's rights" used to be virtually a contradiction in terms. That this is no longer the case is partly due to the efforts of a tiny, underfunded organisation operating from a spartan suite of offices in Islington, north London.

The Children's Legal Centre was the chief British project to emerge from the 1979 International Year of the Child. Established in 1981, it can claim credit for legislative changes as well as shifts in opinion in its 14-year history.

A number of clauses in the Children Act 1989, which came into force in 1991, owe their existence to the lobbying and research work of the centre. Apart from lobbying, the main thrust of its work is focused on its telephone advice line, used chiefly by professionals and other adults acting on behalf of young people, and its monthly magazine, a bulletin of law and policy affecting children and young people.

"We exist to promote children's rights, and the way we do this is based on our legal expertise, which is what makes us different from other children's organisations," explains the co-ordinator Nicola Wyld, a solicitor and member of the Law Society's Family Law Committee. "All the work we do has a very clear legal emphasis and we will advise in any area where youthfulness is relevant in law."

The advice line is open five afternoons a week and staffed by employees of the centre and volunteers, all of whom have legal training. It takes about 250 calls a month. A third of these calls come from professionals, just under two-thirds from relatives and friends, and 5 per cent from youngsters, mainly teenagers.

Education - particularly special needs and exclusions from school - is the biggest single issue, accounting for 30 per cent of the calls. This is followed by issues relating to the Children Act (20 per cent) and sexual and physical abuse (11 per cent).

Maureen O'Hara, an advice co-ordinator, says the centre sees itself as a complement rather than an alternative to the legal profession. "Not everybody who calls has access to legal advice, but quite a lot are represented by solicitors. It is not that they are checking up on what their solicitor has said, but that they want more detail, more background information.

"We find that solicitors do not always have the time or inclination to explain why they are doing or not doing something. For example, parents are often unclear about the rules involving the giving of evidence by children in criminal cases and what the implications of the video link are. Or they may not understand the nature or process behind cross-examination of children.

"We can take time to explain the precise meaning of phrases like `the welfare of the child' or the concept of parental responsibility. Parents may not realise that the legal position is not cut and dried but hazy. I must admit that sometimes quite inadequate information is given by the various agencies involved - not just solicitors."

Some callers are clearly unhappy with their legal representatives. "They feel the solicitor is not fighting their case vigorously enough, or not explaining his or her actions sufficiently. We ask if they have tried to raise these concerns with the solicitor. If they have and there seems no way forward, we ask if they have considered a change."

The centre does not recommend particular firms, but can supply lists of specialist lawyers - members of the Childcare Panel of the Law Society, for example. When lawyers call the centre, it is often in search of a precedent in the field of child law. The subject of access to the social services files of adult clients who were in care as children has prompted a number of recent inquiries.

Another issue causing concern is the anxiety of divorcing women that if they make an accusation of violence or abuse against the father of their children this will be construed as malicious or hysterical by the courts. There are also signs that some recent court orders have resulted in inadequate supervision of the contact between a father accused of abuse and his children. On matters like these, there is a steady demand from the profession for the centre'sexpertise. Its publications and monthly journal, Childright, have also proved useful resources for solicitors.

As well as guides to various aspects of the law - on child support and child sexual abuse, for example - the centre produced the lobby document "Children or Refugees?", which looked at the position of unaccompanied child refugees. It also helped to develop the NSPCC's Child Witness Pack, for parents and children. Childright closely monitors legal and political developments affecting young people.

Policy work is largely shaped by the grassroots information that comes from the advice line, though lobbying and casework have been constrained recently by lack of resources. Funds come from the Department of Health, charitable trusts, the London Boroughs Grants Unit and sales of Childright. But more money is desperately needed.

"We would like to set up a freephone advice service for children and young people and do some outreach work in schools and youth clubs to promote and support it," says Nicola Wyld. "We would also like to provide more advocacy work for young people, particularly in the field of education. Children in schools don't seem to have rights. They are pupils who have things done to them. It is the parents who are the consumers. The situation is similar in the field of mental health and other medical treatment.

"There are so many potential issues we would like to tackle. In theory, we don't limit ourselves. But in practice it comes down to resources."

For further information contact the Children's Legal Centre, 20 Compton Terrace, London N1 2UN; telephone 0171-359 9392. Its advice line is open from Monday-Friday, 2pm-5pm, on 0171-359 6251.